According to the Los Angeles Times's Bill Locey, the Tragically Hip "have long been the biggest band in Canada, where they have won lots of awards and sold even more albums." And although it is not necessarily every Canadian band's goal to be "big in America," critics there wonder why the Hip is not more successful in the United States. Gannett News Service's Daniel Aloi, for example, remarked thatthe band, "long considered the most popular and beloved band in Canada, are still something of an anomaly to many Americans." His opinion?: "It can't be their musicard-edged, emotional and carefully wrought songs with as much appeal as any current stateside alternative act. The five-man band produces loud but melodic rock music, with Gordon Downie's emotional lyrics riding out a deep and roiling musical sea."
The members of the Tragically Hipobby Baker, Gordon Downie, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, and Gord Sinclairent to high school together in Kingston, Ontario, which is about three hours east of Toronto. Although some of the members had known each other much longer, they mark their year of formation as 1986. Since all the clubs in town had nothing but cover bands, the Hip "wanted to provide a suitable soundtrack to hang out with theirfriends and drink beer," according to Locey. They played their first gig at the Kingston Artists Association.
The name of the band was taken from music video pioneer and former Monkee, Michael Nesmith's video called Elephant Parts. The video contained a clip asking for contributions to The Foundation for the Tragically Hipoor, afflicted people in need of Jacuzzis, Lamborghinis, and cocaine. The band thought that was very clever. According to guitarist Baker, "We thought our musical taste was far too sophisticated to be successful," he told Musician's Jon Young. "In Canada, people loved the name, but when we came to the U.S., everyone hated it. One of the worst names in the annals of rock history,' said a critic."
MCA Gets Hip, Thanks to EP
The band self-released a six-song EP entitled The Tragically Hip in 1987. On hearing that record in 1988, MCA Records quickly signed on the Hip. Up to Here, the band's first full-length album, was released in 1989. Charles Foran of Saturday Night wrote that "Up to Here, their 1989 breakthrough album, was happily mired in the pathology of an unnamed Kingston... The album is full of tales of hard-luck Kingston lives." It remains perhaps the most popular recording with fans.
Both Up to Here and 1991's Road Apples contained some pretty hard rockor "fist-pumping riff-rock," opined the Los Angeles View. The American Statesman music critic Michael Corcoram loved Road Apples, although he "didn't care much for their experimental forays and the way [Downie's] lyrics started getting real artsy." In his opinion, the band "went alternative" with 1993's Fully Completely and 1994's Day for Night.
Downie, who is generally credited with lyric writing, had wanted to be a poet in college, but eventually decided against it. In 1996 Foran wrote, "[Downie's] lyrics, once scrupulously crafted, are now more free form, more 'trusting of the moment' of creation, and he isn't always sure where they come from."
Continued Developing Sound
The changes Corcoram heard in the band were obvious to listeners, although most were more positive than Corcoram. Foran said, "Day for Night... confirmed the change: gone were the hook-laden FM tunes and compressed, often funny lyrics. In their place were almost reluctant melodies that stuck in the memory and lyrics, set in a psychological landscape of detached emotions and suppressed violence, that crept into dreams."
Although Downie receives most lyrical credit, the rest of the band functions as a democracy, with everyone having input. As they have grown up together, the Hip's music has also grown and developed. Discussing their changes in a 1994 interview with Martin Renzhofer in the Salt Lake Tribune, bassist Sinclair said, "It's more a question of evolution. It's been a conscious effort in every sense. In the last three or four years, our songwriting system changed." Renzhofer wrote, "Band members were forced out of an individualist style. Song ideas are now brought into the studio, or are boiled down from 3-minute jam sessions." Sinclair continued, "The songs now reflect the collective nature of the band. It's made for a healthier environment within the band with everyone contributing."
In the Los Angeles Times Sinclair offered, "After the first album, everyone thought we were just like the Georgia Satellites; then after the second one, it was the Black Crowes; then after the third one, it was R.E.M.... [but] I think we have our own original sound." According to Locey "the band puts on a killer live show," and Foran called Downie "one of rock's most charismatic front men."
In 1996 the Hip released Trouble at the Henhouse. Downie told Foran, "This is the closest to where the Tragically Hip wants to be as a band." Corcoram agreed. In the American Statesman he had admitted, though a hugefanofthe band's live shows, "I didn't think that they ever made a truly great album....That was until they released Trouble at the Henhouse (three and a half stars), their best album ever."
The Houston Press's Greg Barr gave the album 4 stars and stated, "The band once more carries out a musical niche with intriguing moods rather than winning hooks, waving a multilayered, seamless sound much thicker than you'd expect from the standard two guitars, bass and drums line up." "Among the new songs," wrote Foran in Saturday Night, "are a few instant favourites, plus others that will need further listenings."
The Los Angeles View called the Tragically Hip "the band without a haircut or a gimmick or even a peg that goes much deeper than the all-inclusive 'rock and roll.'" The magazine also advises people not to call the band boring, "not unless you can stand in the middle of their sonic swirl, then walk away without feeling just a little weaker. " With praise like that, the Hip just wants to keep playing and developing their music. "Growing up in Canada," Downie told Musician, "You see the road to Los Angeles littered with the corpses of bands seeking American acceptance, as if that would make you a legitimate success story back home. The lesson is that it's pointless to do anything differently to attract an American audience."
The Tragically Hip (EP), 1987.
Up to Here, MCA Records, 1989.
Road Apples, MCA Records, 1991.
Fully Completely MCA Records, 1992.
Day for Night, Atlantic Recording, 1994.
Trouble at the Henhouse, Atlantic Recording, 1996.
American Statesman (Austin), June 22, 1996.
Gannett News Service, April 27, 1995.
Houston Press, June 20, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1994.
Los Angeles View, August 1, 1996.
Musician, March 1993.
Salt Lake Tribune, July 19, 1996.
Saturday Night, June 1, 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Atlantic Recording Corporation press materials, 1996, and from the Tragically Hip Web page at http://www.thehip.com.
Did this raise a question for you?